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Film industry takes a hit after incentive scrapped

By JACK WEATHERLY

Don’t go by the Mississippi Film Studios to catch a glimpse of movie star.

The 43,000-square-foot purpose-built facility in Canton, which dates to the 1996 movie “A Time to Kill,” based on the John Grisham novel, will become a “bath balm” factory.

Rick Moore, who bought the facility three years ago, shut down operations Sept. 1, he said in an interview.

There simply isn’t enough movie-making to keep the studios open, Moore said.

Moore attributes the fall-off in filmmaking in the state to the fact that a key incentive offered by the state was eliminated July 1.

The Legislature allowed the 25 percent cash rebate for money spent on production cast and crews from out of state to expire.

Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn all cited a study issued by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, in December 2015 that said that for every dollar spent in taxpayer money the return was 49 cents.

The industry created an annual average of 1,058 direct and indirect jobs for six fiscal years starting in 2010, according to the PEER report.

With a tight general budget, it was decided that the film incentives administered by the Mississippi Development Authority had to be trimmed.

Most survived, including the 30 percent rebate on payroll and fringe benefits for cast and crew from Mississippi. And 25 percent for what is spent in the state outside payroll.

To justify keeping the Canton studios open, budgets of at least $5 million would be necessary, Moore said.

Moore, owner of Mad Genius Inc. and Eyevox Entertainment LLC, is still involved in production of movies, but he says he “cannot justify [the big sound stage] just for the movies that I’m going to be working on.”

A year ago, he was getting a dozen calls a month from someone wanting to make a movie. “I might get one every two months now,” he said.

Another thing that may be a factor in the cooling of the industry in Mississippi is House Bill 1523, which the Legislature passed in 2016 and was signed by Bryant.

The so-called religious freedom law was said by proponents to allow businesses, such as bakeries, to refuse service to gay couples.

Hollywood decried the law and some projects were scrapped. The Mississippi Film Office declined to comment on the law’s potential effect on the industry in the state. The office is an arm of the Mississippi Development Authority, which is under the administrative control of the governor.

The law is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court as opponents contend that it is unconstitutional.

Since July 1, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year, the Department of Revenue has paid out $1.1 million in incentives, including $749,264 for nonresident talent, according to agency spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury.

The nonresident rebates were made for work completed and approved before the sunsetting of that incentive.

By comparison, total rebates for the previous full fiscal year were $12.4 million, she said. Nearly half of that was for nonresident payroll, Waterbury said.

She said she did not know the cause of the drop, and she noted that the number probably will grow as production companies finalize their figures.

“It may be too soon to know whether that legislation had anything to do with it,” Waterbury said.

Corey Parker, business agent for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, said that the loss of the nonresident rebate has “definitely had an effect” on the attractiveness of the Magnolia State.

The Mississippi Motion Picture Incentive Program requires that at least 20 percent of the production crew must be Mississippi residents.

Parker maintains that the industry is still in its infancy and says that a local base of talent is being built.

From the union’s perspective, however, the numbers are small, only about 30, compared with 1,300 in Louisiana.

Parker said that the industry needs a voice in the Legislature.

Ward Emling played that role as director of the Mississippi Film Office before retiring July 1 at age 63.

“Ward’s retirement really leaves a hole in the film industry here,” Moore told the Clarion-Ledger in July. “He’s been our voice to the Legislature.”

He was director for 30 years and oversaw putting the incentives program in place in 2004.

Thanks to the program, the number of feature films, documentaries, commercials and other video products grew substantially.

Sixteen feature films in were made in-state in 2014.

Emling did not return a phone call for this article.

Likewise, the Film Office did not return calls.

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About Jack Weatherly

4 comments

  1. Mississippi as a state has a poor reputation, which is costing the state and businesses money. Unfortunately the citizens are perceived to be racist, homophobic and uneducated. Mississippi is a state that I avoid.

  2. Mississippi as a location for film and TV will come roaring back to life in the not-too-distant future. To jumpstart this comeback, the legislature should modify its rebate/incentive residency requirement to apply to any out-of-state individual who rents or leases a residence (not a hotel or motel) in the state for at least 90 consecutive days within a 12-month period. Actors and crew often live gypsy-like lives, so I would think MS, as the penultimate home of Southern Hospitality, would welcome those folks as official residents with a 90-day commitment to making MS their home. And I have a hunch many might choose to remain in the Magnolia State even after the production wraps once they’ve experienced MS’s heart and soul from within.

  3. I work in the motion picture/television industry and after beating my head against the wall that is Mississippi for the last 3 1/2 years, my wife and I moved to Georgia in August. Since that move, I have been continuously employed in my craft. That said, among the plethora of problems plaguing the Mississippi film industry is a lack of trained crew in the filmmaking industry crafts. A second and even more prevalent problem is the fact Mississippi has a form of government I call a cousinocracy. This state is, has and will continue to be run along the lines of a banana republic. And this observation is with my sincerest apologies to banana republics. Until the legislature figures out a way to enrich themselves and their relatives, the film industry in Mississippi will go nowhere and continue to attract only low budget films and reality tv productions. And I am not talking about $125 a day PA gigs either. Just my .02 cents and observations based on my experiences working in film/tv production in Mississippi.

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